Around here, summer means shellfish and recently I had two great dinners featuring our locally harvested clams. Soft shell steamers one night, and delicious stuffed clams another is not a bad way to start what will be a very different summer.
Alden Burnham, like his father Harold Burnham, is a man of many talents: Schoolteacher, wooden boat builder and a commercial clammer. Alden went out to dig clams recently for our friend Chris Stepler of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum. In true Essex fashion, Alden gave Chris way more clams than he paid for, and more than he could possibly use for his chowder. That’s when I got the call to head to Essex and pick up a pleasant surprise!
It was not long after that night of delicious steamers that I found some locally made stuffed clams while shopping at a local farm stand. The nice ladies at the stand swore these Real Deal Stuffed Clams were the best stuffies they ever had. Well, with an edoursement like that how could I say no? I grabbed four of them and sped home before they thawed out.
About Essex Soft Shell Clams
For over a century, the tourists have flocked to the marshy little shipbuilding town of Essex, Massachusetts to indulge in the local soft shell clams. Originally used for cod bait, and food for the poor, the soft shell clams became popular with visitors starting in the second half of the 19th century.
The popularity of steamers and later, fried clams, coincided with the gradual decline in the local wooden shipbuilding industry. As vessel launches became must-see events, visitors would flock to the Essex Causeway to get their fill of local clams. By 1950, the big launches were over, but the tourists return every season.
Either fried or as “steamers” these delicious mollusks are a valuable resource for all the communities that share what is known as The Great Marsh. However I doubt there is a town more dependent on this estuary and its pristine clam flats, than Essex. The last few years have seen an abundance of clams, and plenty of “seed” clams promising a bright future.
Obviously, 2020 has been a nightmare for restaurants. With coronavirus throwing the entire travel and tourism industry into a state of flux, the question may be more about demand than supply. Personally, as a local historian and tour guide, this is affecting me as well. I have no idea what kind of demand there will be for my services. I just hope these clammers can both dig their quota and sell their clams for a good price.
Massachusetts is opening up, and so far so good. Outdoor seating is allowed and early signs point to people wanting to get out. As long as infections (and more importantly, hospitalizations) keep trending down, summer could have a semblance of normalcy.
Essex Steamed Clams
Lots of jobs claim to be “back-breaking work” but clam digging for a living is actually back-breaking work. That is why I am always so grateful anytime my clam digging friends drop off a gift of steamers. With my bad hips and back, digging them myself with friends is not really an option anymore.
The steamers that Alden dug were all perfect size, just big enough to be legal. I love any size clam, but my wife only likes these smaller, less chewy clams. I rinsed the clams in the sink before letting them purge in cold water for 2 hours.
Nothing fancy this time: Just a pot with clams, half a vidalia onion, and a Budweiser tall boy (minus a few swigs). I steamed them for about 10-12 minutes, when my pot boiled over and they were all wide open.
I got some herbs from the garden and chopped them into the melted butter before setting up on the porch for some al fresco dining. Of course the clams were near perfect, my only regret was I should have purged them longer. There was still plenty of grit, but that’s what the broth is for after all.
Thanks to Alden Burnham for digging and to Chris Stepler for sharing the wealth!
Real Deal Stuffed Clam Review
When I found the Real Deal Stuffed Clams in that refrigerated case, I was not looking for seafood. I was at a farm stand, I was looking for local produce. But after taking a closer look, it was impossible to resist a clam so stuffed it looked like a crab cake. For under $5 a clam, I decided to give them a shot.
According to their website, Real Deal Stuffed Clams are the creation of Kathi Noyes and are made right here in Gloucester. You can find these hand made stuffies in stores and restaurants all over the North Shore. That shows how observant I am, as I only recently found them. My only concern about these clams was that some of the stuffing ingredients may upset my stomach. Due to current events I have suspended my low-FODMAP diet, it’s just too hard for me financially and supply-wise. If I were on the strict portion of the diet, I would not eat these.
However my concern was not enough to stop me from wanting to try them. I popped them right from the freezer onto a baking sheet and into the preheated oven. In no time, the smell from that oven was heavenly.
These were incredibly good. with chunks of clam mixed with a warm, comforting stuffing mix that was all nice and crispy. I don’t have a preference when it comes to chopped or minced clams in my stuffie, I want flavor. I’m looking for a combination of rich, clammy goodness and dense, flavorful stuffing. Real Deal Stuffed Clams delivered on all of these.
No doubt, Real Deal makes excellent stuffed clams and I regret that I didn’t buy more. It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to stuffed clams, even bad stuffed clams are pretty good. However in my opinion, Real Deal Stuffed Clams are in the upper echelon.